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Encryption and liberties on the 'ungovernable' internet

  • 14 July 2017


It's been a pressing theme for Australian authorities since September 11: certain spaces of communication are to be questioned and controlled. Despite amassing a set of rules and regulations that make Australia a leader (in a dubious sense) in accessing communications, the Turnbull government wishes for more.

The attitude of Prime Minister Turnbull echoes the fear all autocracies have: that control is slipping away, and that citizens cannot be trusted to behave in a modern communications environment without government intrusions that compel technology companies to surrender encrypted communications, if necessary.

'We cannot allow the internet to be used as a place for terrorists and child molesters and people who peddle child pornography, and drug traffickers to hide in the dark.' Accordingly, 'The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.'

It is worth noting Australia's incremental and increasingly police-styled efforts to tighten the way information is exchanged within the modern security environment. The rationale behind these rules is that citizens must be watched. That such measures are more pernicious than useful is rarely discussed.

Australia's security state is heavily stacked with options. There is legislation that potentially targets journalists for revealing material on Secret Intelligence Operations. There is legislation criminalising the disclosure of information on detention centres by entrusted persons, with few exemptions.

There are data retention laws, based on a dubious understanding of technology, obligating telecommunications companies to retain certain data for at least two years. This has been deemed by the European Union as unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of citizens.

None of this is enough. The Turnbull government wishes to enter what many defenders of net neutrality and freedom would consider untenable: a world of decryption, co-opting the very technology giants that are against it. Effectively, companies such as Facebook and Twitter are being given the tap to suggest ways of overriding their encryption protections. It is a point the prime minister has been threatening for weeks, taking each terrorist outrage as a justification for another legislative drive.

Attorney-General George Brandis has also made the point that he is no fan of encryption technologies, describing them as the 'greatest degradation of intelligence and law enforcement capability' in a lifetime. Indeed, the Turnbull government has been taking the wheels on the subject, with Brandis claiming in June that Australia would be leading discussions on how best to foil encryption efforts behind potential terrorist attacks